Starving Ghosts in every thread - by Eric LaRocca
I came to this book having first encountered Eric's fantastic "Things have gotten worse...", and also his latest short in the "Weretales, a shapeshifter anthology". Given that those two stories were great, I snatched "Starving ghosts..." up, and it took a while before I could fit it in, but I was really looking forward to it.
After reading it, I had to take time out before writing my review, because this book created a dilemma for me. Eric’s debut novella, the book that launched his fantastically unique voice onto the horror scene – didn’t quite work for me. Eric’s voice, his prose, his storytelling style – all of the core elements to the book, worked – absolutely. You can see the wonderful voice already, it is totally readable. But the story didn’t work for me.
To explain that a little more succinctly: The plot of this book and its paranormal/supernatural elements, did not live up to their own logic. The world-building that Eric has invested in, does not follow its own rules. Abilities and “gifts” the characters have been given, are used arbitrarily and are then not used in crucial moments in the story.
Teddy, a character overwhelmed with guilt from an event that happened previously in her life, has a metaphorical shedding of her guilt happen as a real physical event. Her skin (what she thinks of as threads) peels off her like rope, leaving bone and tissue, and blood freely open to the world. This phenomenon is not visible to most people (hinting it is a psychological psychosis/ Internal hallucination), unless the onlooker has also been a victim of Teddy having “fed” on their emotions – another paranormal “ability” of Teddy. For whatever reason, she can see the emotions of people as a physical cloud that is dispensed from people’s heads, from which her threads “eat” (One assumes that the victims of this are also “unaware” of this feeding – they do not see her do it). Once a person has had Teddy eat their emotions, however, they can then see the physical manifestation of her skin threads unraveling.
Now, this may all be a metaphorical example of guilt and its long-reaching effects on other people’s lives, and how a person destroyed by guilt is hypersensitive to other people’s unspoken thoughts and opinions. It might also be an allegory of psychological abuse, mob mentality, and guilt shaming. I don’t know, I’m not going to try to psychoanalyze something as an uneducated (in that field) commentator. I liked the visual imagery here, but couldn’t come to accept the basis behind it. If guilt can manifest as a physical trait (skin sloughing off your body) then the reasoning is that other emotions must also manifest, in other people. Unless Teddy is the chosen one, which we find out, she is not.
Teddy meets another girl, Kiiara (who has no visible emotions, so Teddy could not feed off her, even if she wanted to), whilst obtaining a rare animal, to help treat Teddy’s mother. Her mother, overcome with her own guilt for inciting the incident Teddy feels so much guilt over, has decided that the only way to cure that guilt is through scorpion venom (ok?). As luck would have it, their next-door neighbor is a rare animal and insect handler. Whilst at the neighbor’s “shop”, the two girls meet and connect, and Teddy goes to Kiarra’s house and emotions rise and the two sleep together, and Kiiara “gifts” Teddy her own ability (she can gift her own ability to others) – which is that she can manipulate physical mass. She can look at someone and change the way their skin and muscles and everything fit together, like play-do.
The aforementioned ability took me right back to Neil Gaiman's Sandman, the one episode with Ra the sun god, reforming a follower into a lump of clay. The difference is that Ra reached down and grabbed her. Kiiara (and now Teddy) can re-mold people at will. All well and good – but then Kiiara decides that she wants to rob the animal handler and grab some expensive animals/insects. And they do this by breaking into the house, where they are discovered, and both of the MCs abstain from using their powers at all. Instead of incapacitating him by, say, removing his arms and legs and making him a potato man, or a brick, or in fact, anything, Kiiara (who has had her ability for much longer) attacks the man, beating him senseless, which is a lot riskier, I think than just using her power. At which point, Teddy attacks Kiiara with her threads, and both of them do not use Kiiara’s ability, Kiiara instead succumbing to Teddy’s threads, which are visible to Kiiara even though Teddy has not fed off her, as clarified earlier.
There are, for me, issues. Read as a straight-up “physical manifestation”, and not reading anything into it (that the threads are guilt, the mass manipulation “wishes”), the rules are ignored when it suits the story. Elements such as the handler being the neighbor, seem to be too convenient. The whole story thread of needing scorpion blood is bizarre, and seems to be there purely as a way to bring the two girls together, and give them something to covert (the animals). Teddy has an affinity to all animals – the scorpions do not bite her – another ability that is never explained.
For me, there’s too much here that didn’t gel. Eric’s writing saves the day. Absolutely. His voice, his flare, his eminently readable prose, you can’t ignore it. It turns this into something you want to work. The ideas behind this story are fantastic, the imagination limitless, the visuals outstanding. But the logic… There are too many things to look back on and wonder – why?
This is a three ⭐ read for me. I liked it, but I have no idea what I just read.